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19 December 2012

Doctors: Messengers of peace in the Holy Land

Salsabeel, 11, suffers from kidney failure and travels from Nablus to East Jerusalem three times a week to get treatment. Photo: Christian Aid/Sarah MalianSalsabeel’s kidneys worked perfectly until she was nine years old. But that’s when she was diagnosed with kidney disease, which runs in the family. As a Palestinian, she can have a kidney transplant if one of her parents donates theirs to her. Her mum and dad would love nothing more than to be able to give her one of theirs, but they have been told they are not a match. She is not on the donor list which exists in Israel, because she is a Palestinian. So to treat her condition, Salsabeel has to have a four hour dialysis treatment three times a week: Saturdays, Mondays and Wednesdays. But she lives in the West Bank, where there is no such dialysis provision. So three times a week, she sets off early in the morning with either her mum or her dad to travel to the Augusta Victoria hospital in East Jerusalem.

I join her and her father Nazeeh on one of their early morning journeys on a trip with Christian Aid in November. Leaving our hotel, bleary-eyed, at 3.30am, we drive to just outside the city of Nablus where the family live so that we can set off with them at 5am. The journey is a race against the clock. Every minute counts. As we speed through the motorways before the sun rises, our first stop is Qalandia checkpoint.

Nazeeh has to abandon the car here because Palestinian vehicles are not allowed in to Jerusalem. The checkpoints are in place for security reasons, a measure to stop suicide bombers getting in to Israel.

I hope I never have to experience Qalandia again. It’s the sounds of the cold, hard metal that get to me; the feeling of being trapped inside the narrow corridor leading towards the turnstiles which give you the first taste of freedom. As someone who likes to be in control, I’m uneasy with the uncertainty – of not knowing how many people each turnstile opening lets through, of not knowing how long it will take. Once we’re out of the first section and into the second, awaiting the next set of turnstiles to open, the electricity cuts out. There’s angry shouting on both sides. I don’t understand what the soldiers are saying because they are speaking in Hebrew. I don’t understand what the Palestinians are saying because they’re speaking Arabic.

It takes an hour and 15 minutes to get through. It could have taken a shorter time. It could have taken longer.

I don’t know how Salsabeel goes through this three times a week. She tells me that she plays games with her dad to while the time away. Bright and talkative, she reminds me of some of my cousins – playful little girls who love to be the centre of attention. But I can tell her father is anxious. Nazeeh, who has four other children, knows that for every minute they are late, they lose a minute of dialysis treatment.

Eventually, we’re out of Qalandia and into East Jerusalem. Outside the checkpoint, we board a bus to Damascus Gate, and then jump on another to the hospital where Salsabeel is hooked up to the machine. She says hi to the other children, who are also Palestinian and also have their treatment three times a week.

“There’s an Arabic proverb,” Nazeeh tells me. “It says that we always wish for the things that we don’t have. My wish is for the Palestinian people to have a good, functioning health system – especially when it comes to organ donations.”

Nazeeh has to re-apply for a permit to be allowed into Jerusalem every few weeks and he does that with the help of Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHRI), which has been going for 25 years and is a partner of Christian Aid.

As both an Arab and a Jew, Ran Cohen, executive director of PHRI, is well-placed to be a voice of peace to both sides. “Although I’m not a doctor myself, my work here has opened a lot of channels for me to think differently about what’s happening here in the society in which I’ve grown up.”

Part of PHRI’s work is to provide mobile clinics in remote Palestinian areas where access to good medical care is limited. We join the doctors at their Saturday mobile clinic in Beit Fajjar, a village of around 15,000 people situated a few kilometres from Bethlehem. Most people in Beit Fajjar don’t have enough money to buy prescription drugs.

A mobile clinic run by Physicians for Human Rights visits Beit Fajjar, just outside Bethlehem. Photo: Christian Aid/Sarah MalianIt feels like the whole village has come to meet the doctors and us. There are children everywhere, holding our hands, rushing to make friends with us – attempting to communicate with the limited Arabic words we know and the few English words that they have picked up from Spongebob Squarepants on TV.

“The mobile clinics are a modest action for us,” says Ran. “They’re a way for us to show solidarity. But we are more than a humanitarian organisation. Our aim is not just to provide medical care. We’re a human rights organisation. We want to change policies. We don’t think it’s our role to provide medical care, but the government’s. But medical care is a channel for us to get to know the people, to get to know their stories, to get to understand their problems and identify the principles we want to advocate for.”

Aharan Karny is a Jewish-Israeli doctor, who has been volunteering with PHRI for 20 years. “I do it because I have scruples about the situation, about the occupation, as a Jew,” he says. “I’m quite lucky I know basic Arabic so I can connect with the patients here. It’s not so much just about medical care, but an opportunity for both sides to see the humanity in each other.”

Salah Haj Yehya, who is in charge of the mobile clinics, tells us: “Some of our doctors volunteer on a political basis and others on a purely medical basis. They don’t have to be against the occupation. Each to their own.”

He tells us that there is an increasing need for women-only clinics as there has been a rise in the number of women in the area that are diagnosed with breast cancer. “We offer education about breast cancer and offer them the chance to be checked out by a female doctor. It also gives the women time away from their families.”

It’s not just the Palestinian people in desperate need of medical care. Azezet Habtezghi Kidane – also known as Sister Aziza – has drawn attention to the human trafficking of refugees from Eritrea and Sudan, who often face torture and sexual slavery while crossing Sinai.

Sister Aziza, who is a member of the Comboni Missionary Sisters from Eritrea, joins us at the mobile clinic in Beit Fajjar. She has helped to identify men, women and children kidnapped, raped or forced into sexual slavery. They are also tortured for ransom for thousands of dollars.

“I cannot tell you the tales that I hear,” she says. “Because I even feel ashamed to tell them. I feel ashamed that a human person has done these things to another person. But the people themselves need someone to listen to them, to tell their stories. Because God’s grace is great, I’m able to become strong for them.

“PHR has been giving help to any person who does not have access to medical facilities. It doesn’t exclude the people who need it.”

She also urged Christians who travel to the Holy Land on pilgrimages to see “the biblical places of our roots”, but also open their eyes to the plight of those suffering and living in poverty; and do what they can to help. “Even the Christians in Palestine feel abandoned here. We need to pray for peace in Israel. If we don’t pray for peace, we cannot change. I would urge the Christian community across the world to pray for us.”

For more information on Christian Aid’s Christmas appeal, Healing in this Holy Land, or to make a donation, call 020 7523 2493 or visit christianaid.org.uk/christmas

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